The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday night unanimously approved the sweeping renovation plans for The Mai-Kai, moving the ambitious $8.5 million project to rejuvenate and reopen the 65-year-old restaurant one step closer to final approval.
In a nearly two-hour public hearing in the City Hall Commission Chambers and streamed online via Zoom, the board members OK’d The Mai-Kai’s application for a “certificate of appropriateness” to make a wide range of changes to the 2.7-acre property, which is registered as both a local and national historic landmark. City code requires such an approval for work to proceed on “any alteration requiring a building permit which may change the exterior appearance of an individually designated historic building or structure.”
The approval came with a list of six recommendations by city staff that will still need to be adhered to. But those addenda to the plan likely won’t require a return to the full five-member board. After the meeting, the head of The Mai-Kai’s ownership group, Bill Fuller, told us that he was pleased that the city and board were able to “collaborate with us on the restoration plans.” He described the hearing as “very productive” and “the culmination of what The Mai-Kai will look like” when it reopens.
The overall plans are now headed to Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee, which could give it the final go-ahead. This next step covers many other details not related to the historic status, such as parking, Fuller said in an interview Thursday. His team is eager to move forward “as quickly as possible,” he said.
The committee is scheduled the review the project at its Jan. 26 meeting. After that, it should be full-steam ahead for the renovation plans. “We’re going to be guns blazing to get it open,” Fuller said. The Mai-Kai has been closed for 26 months and counting, so the owners and investors are eager to begin operating the cash registers again.
Fuller said the benchmark goal is to open in time for the June 9-12 return of The Hukilau, the Polynesian Pop weekender that draws thousands to The Mai-Kai from around the world. That would fit in with the announced goal to be back in business by the time summer starts.
To meet this deadline, however, the initial site plan will not include every piece of the project, Fuller said. The new event space, for example, will come later in Phase 2. Since that space, along with the adjacent new kitchen, entail new construction from the ground up, they will be pushed back until after the initial reopening, he said.
Fuller said The Mai-Kai will employ a “provisional kitchen” until the permanent structure is completed. This will mean that a limited food menu will be offered at first, but Fuller promised a full beverage menu.
The approval of the certificate of appropriateness, or COA, was crucial in allowing The Mai-Kai to lock into the most important elements of its reimagining of the South Seas themed tropical paradise on Federal Highway. Without it, they were unable to obtain building permits for the major enhancements.
The restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a torrential rainstorm and malfunctioning sprinkler system caused a massive roof collapse over the kitchen. A large chunk of the back of house had to be demolished, but most of the historic guest areas of the sprawling, 450-capacity venue remained unscathed. It’s the first extended closure since The Mai-Kai’s opening on Dec. 28, 1956.
When the scope of the restoration became evident, the founding Thornton family embarked on a joint venture with Fuller, the developer and historic preservationist who leads Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. The partnership paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage, according to reports of the sale in October 2021. Another $1 million was added to the budget for crucial enhancements, Fuller revealed at The Hukilau in June.
Fuller and Barlington Group have a wealth of experience with commercial properties in South Florida, many of them historically significant. Tenants include Fort Lauderdale’s Toasted Bagelry & Deli, plus Little Havana’s Blackbird Ordinary, 8 Burger, Little Havana Cigar Factory, and the 87-year-old landmark Ball & Chain music venue. Mad Room Hospitality, which operates Ball & Chain, will run The Mai-Kai along with the Thornton family.
To ensure both the economic viability of The Mai-Kai and the restoration of all its classic elements, Fuller and a team of architects and designers mapped out a creative plan to modernize the kitchen, add an event space and reimagine the property while keeping most of the historic elements intact. Initial artwork and renderings were unveiled at an Oakland Park neighborhood participation meeting in late April.
The new ownership group requested the COA approval “for the renovation and improvement” of the property at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale. The initial plans were first submitted to the Development Review Committee in May, but due to a number of delays they did not come up for approval before the Historic Preservation Board until this week.
In the meantime, The Mai-Kai completed an overall of the aging infrastructure. Leaky roofs were fixed and replaced, a modern air-conditioning system was installed, and much of the electrical system was rewired. The popular takeout cocktail program, which began during the pandemic, continues on special holiday weekends.
Exclusive updates: News, photos of all the work done in 2022
Work inside on restoring the elaborately themed dining rooms and Tiki garden has been ongoing since July. But updates, changes and additions to the exterior and grounds were stalled while awaiting the plans to be approved in their entirety.
Among the key elements of the plan presented to the board:
* A re-routing of the main entrance and addition of a roundabout in the rear parking lot, requiring the demolition of the long dormant Bora Bora building (added in 1960). Formerly used as a banquet room and gift shop, the structure was part of the historic designation in 2014. But it has been not been used since it was damaged and knocked off its foundation by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Many detailed renderings and schematics of the plans were unveiled by The Mai-Kai’s new landscape architects.
* The addition of a banquet hall with a soaring A-frame roof in part of the footprint of the old kitchen. A rebuilt, modern kitchen will take up much less space, allowing for this new facility to handle weddings, reunions and the many extra events that will help keep The Mai-Kai business thriving. Plans were also unveiled and renderings shown of a new outdoor event space adjacent to the planned building on the south end of the property.
The city staff recommendations that The Mai-Kai must follow include:
* Making sure as many exterior finishes of the Bora Bora building are preserved prior to demolition and “incorporated into the proposed new design.” Before demolition, The Mai-Kai must provide to city staff the existing building plan as well as illustrate how it plans to use the salvaged materials. General manager Kern Mattei spoke at length during the hearing about the history and current condition of the Bora Bora structure, including details on exactly what could be salvaged. Unfortunately, much of the exterior has fallen victim to Mother Nature’s wrath. He did point out some lava rock that could be salvaged, adding that the interior of the building is in decent shape with elements that could find future use.
* Showing the city how it plans to replace any historic Tiki statues, including a detailed plan for the restoration and replication of the figures. As Mattei pointed out in the public hearing, most of the smaller statues are actually replicas of the historic originals cast in cement. Even so, he said, they need to be replaced periodically due to damage and will continue to be replicated in the same fashion. The founding Thornton brothers had dozens of molds made in the 1970s to preserve the totems they purchased and/or brought back from trips to the South Pacific. Much of the original Thornton collection is now housed in museums, Mattei said. Plans are also being considered to replace or repair the larger outdoor wooden Tiki carvings that were too large to have molds made, he said.
* Providing a detailed plan for the restoration of the exterior of the main A-frame, including “decorative repainting of the original mural, including a descriptive plan and photos or sketches of the proposed artwork.” After debate over the recent addition of a weatherproof coating that obscured some of the artwork, Fuller assured the board that much care will be taken to return the A-frame to its original condition, including its distinctive artwork and thatching. Fuller said his team has been in talks with the artist who worked on the building in 1970 to come back and restore the mural.
* Giving the city more information and details on work planned for the facade, walkway and garden area that will run along the south end of the property next to the new event space. This work will be part of the second phase of development and not affect the initial reopening.
Based on the unanimous approval, the board appeared to be impressed with The Mai-Kai’s detailed presentation, which addressed many of their questions. One board member raised the prospect of designing some of the new additions in a more modern style, so they could be differentiated from the original historic building. But, as explained by several of the speakers, the very nature of the transportive and immersive experience that the restaurant provides would benefit more from a more cohesive look and feel.
Among those speaking on behalf of The Mai-Kai at Wednesday’s hearing along with Fuller and Mattei were land-use attorney Stephanie Toothaker, senior project manager Melissa Ann Bierman of Kravit Architectural Associates, and Jesse Muller of Perry-Becker Design. Several members of the public also spoke in enthusiastic support of The Mai-Kai plans.
Also playing a crucial role at the public hearing was Richard Heisenbottle, president of R.J. Heisenbottle Architects in Coral Gables and one of the state’s leading authorities on the restoration of historic properties. Since tiny Oakland Park has just two historic properties and no fulltime historic preservation officer, Heisenbottle has been retained to serve in that role as a special master in dealing with The Mai-Kai plans. His expertise from four decades of preserving prestigious landmarks came to the fore several times during negotiations on the city staff recommendations, which were amended at the end of the hearing.
Toothaker, who has been working with the Thornton family since before the roof collapse, kicked off the presentation by speaking of the effort by both the city and new ownership team. “It’s been all hands on deck trying to figure out how to do it the right way and make sure that what could be saved is saved,” she said. “And what couldn’t be saved, like the Bora Bora Room, needed to be addressed.” The demolition will allow for site improvements and greatly improve the guest experience, she and the other speakers said. In the end, the board agreed unanimously.
After documenting the damage and existing conditions, Bierman showed an array of new architectural plans and renderings. “We are proposing access and circulation improvements off North Federal Highway with a new roundabout parking layout and landscape enhancements, consistent with historical simulated rock and lush tropical landscaping,” she told the board. She also showed restoration and improvement plans for the A-frame, the porte-cochère, and the new event center. Even the back side of the building will be upgraded with wood panels and landscaping to match the rest of the property.
Next up was Muller of Perry-Becker, an Orlando-based planning, landscape architecture and thematic design firm and new member of The Mai-Kai team. The company specializes in hospitality and resort planning, themed entertainment design, and construction management. Past clients include Disney World, Universal Orlando, and Dollywood.
Muller, a thematic design associate for the firm, showed off a much more detailed, intricate and immersive vision for the environment around The Mai-Kai than the previous landscape architecture team presented last April. He spoke of restoring the wooden bridge at the Federal Highway entrance and the care that went into incorporating Polynesian culture and art into even the smallest details.
For example, the roundabout that will divert traffic off the highway will feature concrete that replicates authentic tapa cloth and uses common colors (reds, browns, blacks) used in artwork on the islands. Light and sign poles will be clad with new Polynesian style coverings.
Muller said the designers are trying to add “as much Polynesian culture as possible and make sure everyone who comes to this new and revitalized Mai-Kai understands that there’s a lot more cultural connection now.” Traditional Polynesian cultural symbols will be incorporated into the arrival experience as pebble rock embedded in the ground, he said, while the roundabout island will feature a lighted volcanic rock display.
Another proposed new feature that Muller touted is a life-sized replica of a traditional Polynesian catamaran that would be tucked under the porte-cochère and serve as an outdoor stage. Plans also call for an outdoor bar and seating area to serve arriving guests.
New renderings of the planned event space, designed by Mai-Kai creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, were also shown. The new building will feature a traditional Marquesan design, a style not represented in any of the other dining rooms.
Fuller closed out the presentation, praising The Mai-Kai’s historical significance and its importance not only to the local community but to the world, comparing it to World Heritage Sites.
When reached Thursday, Fuller said he was proud of his entire team for their efforts, citing the “different level of work” and “extra level of enthusiasm” that they bring to the project. He said he felt a “great deal of satisfaction” that their passionate presentation at the hearing was rewarded.
He also praised the extended Thornton family that continues to manage the site and guide the creative efforts. Fuller called Mattei, a Thornton cousin and second-generation manager whose parents met and married while working there, “the embodiment of The Mai-Kai.”
“The family is very excited,” he said, also mentioning Kulani Thornton Gelardi, daughter of Bob and Mireille Thornton and now head of the family’s ownership team. She was unable to attend in person but participated remotely while Mattei spoke before the board.
Fuller said that matriarch Mireille Thornton is eager to begin work on the next version of the Polynesian Islander Revue, which she has choreographed since the early 1960s when she was a dancer. She later married co-founder Bob Thornton and has led the family ownership team since his death in 1989, giving The Mai-Kai distinctive status as a Polynesian restaurant truly run by natives of the islands.
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